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Transcript of speech delivered at the graduation of Richard Smit and Cheah Fook Meng, on June 17, 1996.

It is in the context of Christ-centered preaching that we must understand the discussion over redemptive-historical preaching vs. exemplaristic preaching.

In an important writing on this subject (The History of Redemption in the Preaching of the Gospel, by B. Holwerda) the author states that really the origin of redemptive-historical preaching is to be found in “an ongoing discussion and debate which stirred the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands during the 1930s.” It is the author’s contention that during this crucial period of time in the Netherlands many ministers in the Reformed churches were guilty of preaching which could only be characterized as “exemplaristic.” It was Dr. Klaas Schilder who raised a voice of protest against this kind of preaching and insisted on redemptive-historical preaching, an insistence which played at least a partial role in his ouster from the Reformed Churches in the early 1940s.

I may use the definitions offered in this book to clarify what is the difference between the two types of preaching. Exemplaristic preaching, according to the author, “treats Biblical history as a number of independent happenings which are examples for us.” Redemptive-historical preaching, on the other hand, “understands the historical accounts in their relation to each other, in their mutual inner unity, in their relation to the center of salvation history.” To put the differences in another way, we may say that the one method uses Bible narratives to find examples of how we are to live; the other finds Christ and His work of redemption even in sacred history. The one has to do with “practical” preaching; the other with more “doctrinal” preaching.

Although it is not of major concern to us at the moment, it might be well to mention, at least in passing, that true preaching in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ has from the beginning of the new dispensational era been redemptive-historical. It is a bold statement to suggest that this began with Dr. Klaas Schilder. Surely no one can deny that the preaching of the Reformers of the 16th century was redemptive-historical. Timothy George, in his Theology of the Reformers, points out that Luther insisted that preaching “must be true to its proper content, which is Christ.” And A. Skevington Wood, in his Captive to the Word, devotes an entire chapter to “Luther and the Christ-centeredness of Preaching.”

But however that may be, what is of greater importance to us is the fact that those who so strongly defend redemptive-historical preaching seem to set it over against exemplaristic preaching. And in setting the former over against the latter, the latter is denied as a valid method of preaching. That strikes us as a mistake.

I Corinthians 10:11 speaks in so many words of the “examples” of the lives of Old Testament saints. It is true that the crucial word in that passage can be translated “types,” as the defenders of redemptive-historical preaching maintain. But it is also true that the context compels us to translate the words as “examples” and not as “types.” Referring to Israel’s sad history in the wilderness and the judgments of God which came upon the people for their disobedience, the apostle Paul declares: “Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples (not types): and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.”

This ought not to surprise us, for Scripture is much more bold than merely to hold up the saints as examples to us. Scripture insists that God Himself is our example, when in Ephesians 5:1 we are told to be imitators of God. And Christ is emphatically described as an example of patience in suffering for well-doing (I Pet. 2:21). Should it surprise us then that the saints also whose lives are described in Scripture are held up for examples? Hebrews goes so far as to claim that these very saints are a cloud of witnesses who testify of the power of faith, and whose faith we are to emulate.

But this does not mean that we are opposed to redemptive-historical preaching. Indeed we are not. All preaching ought to be redemptive-historical. Even exemplaristic preaching. The problem is to set the two over against each other as if it is a matter of either-or. The fact is that it is both-and.

Those who want to set the two over against each other can easily fall into mistakes. It is true, as the author of the above named book points out, that exemplaristic preaching can deteriorate into mere homilies and a sort of do-goodism. He himself gives two striking examples: Jesus’ invitation to attend the wedding at Cana of Galilee becomes an example of how newly-married couples ought to invite Jesus into their marriages. And Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is a homily on how we ought to purify the worship of God. No Reformed man preaches that way — or ought to preach that way.

But to exclude from exemplaristic preaching the fact that the lives of the saints serve as our example upon whom the end of the ages is come is equally to fall into the error of finding types and shadows of Christ in Scripture where there are none and where Scripture itself does not give direction. Then it is easy to make the purple cord by which Rahab let down the two spies from Jericho’s walls a type of the blood of Christ by which we escape from our own spiritual Jericho. And Rahab’s faith is no longer an example to us. Soon that kind of preaching becomes allegorical and is a kind of preaching which gives license to ministers to make of historical texts anything their vivid imaginations are capable of making out of them.


All of this leads to the question of what constitutes a Christ-centered sermon. And to this we now turn.

Christ-centered preaching is preaching which is God-centered. That first of all. Christ is the Word of God in whom is the fullness of the revelation of Jehovah God in all His infinite perfections. Preaching which is properly and truly God-centered is preaching which extols the greatness of the glory of God and brings the people of God to give all praise and honor to Him who is enthroned on high.

Secondly, Christ-centered preaching is doctrinal preaching. God reveals Himself in Christ in all the truth of His own divine being. He speaks in Christ of Himself. When I speak of doctrinal preaching, I mean exactly such preaching which explains, expounds, and develops the truth of the Word of God who is the full revelation of God Himself. Such doctrine as is proclaimed in Christ-centered preaching is doctrine which is to be proclaimed for its own sake. While certainly it is true that preaching attempts to apply the truth of God’s Word to the life and calling of the people of God, doctrinal preaching is, in its own right, good and attractive, desirable for the people of God, for by it they come to know the God who loves them. And there is blessedness in knowledge for its own sake, for eternal life is, according to Jesus own words, to know God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent.

Christ-centered preaching is antithetical preaching. This means a number of things. Antithetical preaching is preaching of sovereign and eternal predestination in both election and reprobation. When the late Herman Hoeksema introduced a series of radio sermons on predestination, he called this topic the heart of the gospel — that is, that which pulses in the whole of the preaching and gives to the gospel its life and power. It is the truth of God’s eternal purpose to save some and damn others. This antithesis is realized in the cross on which Christ both attained salvation for His people and brought the judgment of God upon the unbelieving. “Now is come the judgment of this world….”

That antithesis extends to the gospel itself. It extends to the contents of the gospel, for the gospel is addressed to the people of God. It is the good news from heaven; but that good news is for those whom God loves and for whom Christ died. It is good news to those who believe. For the rest it is bad news indeed, for it is the solemn warning of God that apart from faith and repentance is death and everlasting desolation. This distinction must be made explicit in the preaching so that everyone who hears knows that the gospel is a savor of life unto life, but also of death unto death. And this is because the gospel is also, just as its good news is for the elect, the power to save them and them alone. The gospel brings antithesis, division, separation. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe, and to them only.

Antithetical preaching calls the people of God to live an antithetical life in the world. That is, it calls them to live that life which is a constant witness of the power of heaven, of citizenship in the kingdom of Christ, which kingdom is in heaven. It is not only a calling, however, but also the power itself to live such a life in this present evil world so that the antithesis of the gospel is manifested in the walk of those saved by its power.

It is immediately clear that such Christ-centered preaching is also exemplaristic preaching. Scripture is filled with examples of saints whose lives testify to us in calling us sharply to live as they lived. To ignore this is to ignore an important part of Holy Writ. We are summoned to a holy walk by the testimony of others whose witness rings throughout the pages of Holy Writ.

There is much need of practical preaching. But at that point where practical preaching is no longer doctrinal preaching, it ceases altogether to be preaching. Practical preaching is in the truest sense of the word doctrinal preaching.

But let us be sure we get it straight. Such exemplaristic preaching is also Christ-centered. We are called to be imitators of God Himself, Scripture tells us; but we are called to be imitators of God as dear children, made to be such by the power of the cross. Peter does not exaggerate when he implores us to follow in the footsteps of Christ Himself in enduring the suffering which is our lot, for Christ is an example. But He is our example, as Peter goes on to say, because He suffered, the Just One for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God; for by His stripes we are healed. All the saints serve as our example because they were given the power of a new and sanctified life in the redemptive power of the cross. If Scripture is not afraid to depict them in all their sins, it is that we may find that they are sinners as we are. But their noble and astonishing lives of faith are our examples because, if they were as sinful as we are, the power of faith in them can carry us also to the pinnacles of trust in God.

And finally, Christ-centered preaching is preaching which leads God’s people to the cross. Every sermon has got to lead God’s people to the cross. That is the only place for them to go. That is where they want to go. That is where they hear the voice of the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep.

There are two reasons why preaching always leads to the cross. The first is obvious: God’s people, overcome with the consciousness of their sins, need to be led to the cross that they may find there forgiveness and pardon, for it is in the redemptive power of Calvary that alone can be found full and free forgiveness of sin. But God’s people need to go to the cross also so that they may find in that cross of Christ the grace and strength to walk as God’s people in the world. They possess not this strength of their own. They have no ability to do such things as Scripture requires of them. They need the power of the cross. And when Christ-centered preaching leads them to the cross, then they learn to rely upon it alone, to seek their strength and life from Christ and Him crucified, and to put their trust in that cross.

Let it be known to God’s saints: In the cross is indeed the power of a new life.

If you, beloved graduates, will only understand what it means to preach Christ crucified, to preach nothing else, ever, than Christ crucified, then you will be faithful servants of Christ to bring a gospel into this sorry world which brings heaven to earth, salvation to God’s people, and glory to God alone. Make your motto and take as the polestar in all your ministry those ringing words of Paul in the conclusion of his letter to the Galatians: “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (6:14).